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Chapter 9: An Overdue Conversation
The soft sound of water slapping against the bridge supports would have been soothing in any other circumstance, but Beth couldn’t feel anything but nerves right now. She crossed her arms tightly over her chest and leaned against the pillar on the end of it, shivering slightly. Winter was fast approaching, setting its iron claws deep into the city, and she had dressed for the weather in a thick green jumper and jeans. She thought wistfully of her cold weather robes, still tucked away in her tiny flat, and wished they could have been a bit less conspicuous; as it was, wearing them would have made any chance passersby look twice, which was definitely something she wanted to avoid. But it wasn’t only the chill that was making her shake.
Severus's letter had arrived without warning, appearing quite innocently on her desk, where an owl must have dropped it through the open window. She had been unconsciously watching for it ever since the night of the Order mission, seeing Severus for the first time in over a year, despite telling herself it was unlikely he would ever write her. He might have told her that he was going to, and she’d really had no reason to disbelieve him, but things would have been eternally simpler if she’d never heard from him again.
But she had wanted to hear from him; that much was unarguable. It almost didn't matter what Sirius would have thought of it, or James. Even Remus would probably disapprove, but the innate longing to talk to him after so long - to try and repair what had been broken that day outside the lake - was much, much stronger.
The letter was in Beth’s pocket now - a sort of talisman to prove that the whole affair wasn’t something she had dreamed up - and she fished it out with slightly difficulty. It was bent from being stuffed there so roughly, but was still readable under the faint light the night sky gave off:
I need to talk to you. Meet me at the bridge next Sunday night- it’s very important.
She had known that she would go, even before she had finished reading the extremely short letter. Not going wasn’t an option, even though she should have thrown the letter in the rubbish bin. What was she expecting to come of meeting him like this, cloaked in secrecy? For all she knew, it could be a trap, or a joke.
Beth glanced up again at the sky as she returned the letter to her pocket and rubbed her arms forcefully in an effort to get them warm again. The moon was nearly full, and that meant that in a night or two, Remus would be transforming. He didn’t like to talk about them anymore, not since he’d asked to do them alone. In a perverse sort of way, she missed being a part of it - sitting in the tree late at night, waiting for Remus to become himself again. So much had changed in such a short space of time, to the point where she was waiting by a bridge for Severus Snape, when a month ago had no idea where he was, or what he was doing, or if he even still remembered her.
There was a sudden noise from across the courtyard, and she stiffened, hand moving instinctively to her other pocket to hover over her wand. It wasn’t much - something akin to the shuffling of dry leaves on pavement - but then, from the very edge of the distant shadows, she saw a person, taking confident but careful steps in her direction.
Her heart jammed in her throat, beating fast and hot, blood pumping through her ears at a frenetic pace. She would have known him from much further away - the posture, the silhouette, and the way he walked was so distinctive. It couldn’t be anybody else but him.
He seemed to take an eternity to reach her - an eternity was easy to measure out if you had to focus on every breath and every heartbeat in order to not completely lose focus of everything at hand. He walked with a measured casualness that was easily recognized, intent on the spot where she stood.
What did he have to say to her? What would she say to him? She remembered the pressure of his hand on her wrist as she'd scrambled up the riverbank last time, and his insistence that he wouldn't let her run without a decent set of answers. Maybe tonight he would have his answers, and she could return to some semblance of normalcy. But would anything be normal once she had given them?
And suddenly Severus was there, directly in front of her, just standing with his arms by his sides as though he had no idea what to do with them. He was drastically underdressed - and, she noticed with some measure of surprise, in Muggle clothes for the first time in memory - in a thin black shirt with long sleeves and slim, dark jeans. It was no wonder she hadn't seen him until he'd started to make his way towards her.
“So. I’m here.”
Immediately afterward Beth wanted to kick herself for sounding so stupid, and tried to hide it by folding her arms over her chest in a gesture that she hoped looked defensive. Severus was looking down at her as though trying to sort out the puzzle she’d put into the sentence, and gave up at last.
“I’m glad you are here.” And again there was that feeling of her heart lodging right in her throat as he glanced quickly over his shoulder, back the way he had come. “Are you alone?”
“I’m not stupid enough to bring someone with me. Sirius would love to know I’m here,” she said, much more icily than she meant to. His eyes darkened, if possible, and he scowled briefly in her direction.
“I didn’t say you were stupid,” he snapped, his eyes fixed on a point just over her head. Beth was put vividly in mind of their very first proper conversation, in the entrance hall at the beginning of seventh year. For some reason, that made her throat clench up even more tightly than it already was.
He closed his eyes briefly, drew in a long breath, and let it out slowly. "I didn't come here to fight with you. I came here because I need tell you something," he said at last, the words slow and deliberate, as though he were afraid of saying the wrong thing.
"I'm sorry," Beth said at last, but she didn't unfold her arms. "And I'm listening."
But Severus didn't say anything right away; he went on studying her intently, as though trying to figure her out. It wasn't an uncomfortable look, but she could feel heat rising to her face from it all the same. Beth was distinctly glad that it was as dark as it was; her reaction to his presence would be less noticeable that way.
"I've had a long time to do a lot of thinking." He spoke as a man who didn't quite know where to begin, and was attempting to find his footing along the way instead. "Over a year, Beth. And I don't know -" He stopped, swallowed, and tried again. Beth felt her heart squeeze slightly at the obvious care he was placing into whatever he had found so important that he'd called her out here to say it.
"That day, by the lake, you mentioned something about my Patronus," Severus said, and he leaned forward conspiratorially so that his dark hair curtained his face, throwing it into even deeper shadow. Beth unconsciously mirrored the movement. "And I never knew why. It didn't make any sense to me, until - recently."
She didn't miss the slight pause in his words. Her stomach was turning somersaults. "I remember," she said in a low voice, biting her lower lip to stop it shaking with renewed nerves. It was suddenly very clear just how close their faces had become, and she took a step back to try and regain some sense of control over herself.
"I realized," Severus continued, stepping back as well and stuffing his hands into his pockets, "that my Patronus takes the form of a doe." He took his eyes from her for the first time since initiating conversation and looked out over the invisible river, still sloshing gently against its banks. "And you must have known that." He darted a look back at Beth, and she nodded stiffly, crossing her arms tighter over her chest. These were waters she was desperately wary of sailing into.
"And it... took that form because, I think, of Lily. Lily Evans." Severus said this in a rush, and with a noticeable wince, but Beth almost didn't register it for the ice that had seemed to drop into her stomach at those words. She'd thought the very same thing for months on end, but it was different - much different - to hear him say it aloud.
"But the thing is," he amended hastily, seeing something in her expression that made him forge on, "that it's changed." He waited a beat, and then repeated, "It changed forms." He reached a hand into his pocket and extracted his wand.
Beth watched apprehensively, trying to ignore the small bubble of hope rising in her chest and failing entirely. Severus lifted the wand and, as he had a few minutes earlier, closed his eyes to concentrate on some internal thing. A small wisp of silver shot from the end of his wand, growing all the time in size and clarity, and Beth felt her throat close up with anticipation.
One thing was certain - whatever creature it was that had emerged from the wand tip, it was most definitely not a doe. It moved with less grace, and when it turned its long, bony head to look at her, Beth shivered without thinking. It was like a horse, but darker, more eerie, and with large, bat-like wings…
“It’s a thestral,” she said in a flat voice, slightly confused. Severus was looking at her again, and his face fell at her apparent lack of understanding as to what the changed Patronus signified. He swallowed again, and then spoke, the words sounding dredged up from somewhere he’d been keeping them locked up.
“Don’t you remember?” He crossed back toward her, and his hair fell once more in front of his eyes. He brushed it away impatiently. “You and I saw a thestral. Well, you did.” Severus ran a hand through his hair and swallowed hard again.
Beth felt her face go hot again, but even she was unable to keep a powerfully delighted smile from curving up her mouth. She raised a hand to her lips and pretended to scratch a nonexistent itch on her upper lip to hide the gesture. “I do remember,” she said, and found to her slight dismay that her voice quavered with some unnamed emotion. The thestral took off for the distant buildings, and just as it reached them, vanished in small threads of silver vapor. Both of them stared after it for a time.
“It means something,” Severus said emphatically, and the expression in his eyes made Beth’s stomach turn again. She sucked in a quick breath and busied herself with fiddling with the hem of her jumper, not looking back at him for several long moments. “And I - I’m willing to find out what.”
Beth took careful stock of her emotions before finally daring to turn her face back to his. Something had occurred to her, quite suddenly, and a puzzled frown just as quickly replaced the smile he had put on her face. “You couldn’t see the thestral that night, out by the tree.”
And she knew why he could now - there wasn’t a single thing left with which to use to deny it. Severus’s mouth formed a thin line, and he nodded. Beth pressed her lips together as well, knowing exactly what that meant. He had killed one of the men Sirius and Frank and Alice had found - he had to have.
She felt her pulse rocketing along, just under her jaw, and pressed an unconscious finger to the spot while she tried to think of the proper thing to say. “You know what I’m doing, don’t you.” It was not a question, and he didn’t take it as one. Severus looked at her levelly, fingers running up and down his wand like the pale legs of spiders. She forced herself to look away from his hands.
“I know what you’re doing,” he confirmed. “And you?”
But of course Beth knew what he had been up to. Any other hopes or wishes that might have crossed her mind since walking away from him, in seventh year - those were fantasies, built on less substance than children’s dreams. Yes, she knew exactly what he had been doing with himself these many, many months.
The question was whether it mattered to her anymore. And - incredibly - the entire world seemed all at once much larger than the two of them, standing by this bridge under a sky brightly peppered with stars. Were they so different that they couldn’t overcome it? At one time, she would have protested it couldn’t ever happen. Those protests sounded feeble to her ears.
Hesitantly, Beth reclaimed the step she had taken away from him, and they were once more barely a foot apart in distance. Severus’s eyes bored into her, waiting for her answer. There was one option left to her. She already knew what she would find. Without even asking if it was all right to do so, Beth’s hands moved towards his left forearm, tensed from where he still clutched his wand. He didn’t protest as she slid the fabric upwards.
There, branded on his skin in impossibly dark ink, was a tattoo he had not had the last time she had properly talked to him. It was a grotesque-looking skull, jaws open in a silent jeer, with a snake frozen in a twisting motion where a tongue would normally be. She had known to expect it - Moody had told them about the tattoo ages ago, as something that could be used to definitively identify the enemy. But seeing it here didn’t change her convictions at all, she found, and it was the absolute best she could remember feeling in a long, long time.
Just as slowly, she pushed the sleeve back down until it covered the tattoo in its entirety. She did not remove her hands from Severus’s arm, and he made no move to pull away, despite the fact that they were closer now than ever. For the first time all evening, Beth smiled and made no effort to hide it, something liberating coursing through her, making her feel light and dizzy and warm despite the winter cold. She said the first thing that popped into her mind.
“I don’t want to be angry at you, Severus.” They were the exact words he had said to her after their row on pureblood ethics, and she knew he would remember. She watched eagerly as something clicked in his brain, and he smiled more broadly than she could ever remember him smiling before, and all the while, she could feel the pulse in his wrist, matching hers almost beat for beat.
Slowly, Severus lifted his right hand and pushed back a lock of hair that had fallen onto Beth’s forehead, still grinning. The place where his skin met hers burned with the fleeting memory of it; every pore, every cell clung to it. “I’m glad,” he said, in a low voice.
A sudden noise behind them made them both jump, disturbing the charged air that had, until then, seemed to buzz about their heads like a cloud. Severus lit the tip of his wand and brandished it at the spot where the noise had generated from, other arm half-shielding Beth. From the shadows under the bridge, a cat poked its head around the concrete, its eyes glowing eerily in the wandlight.
But the disturbance had shocked some sense back into Beth, if only for a moment, and she crossed her arms over her chest again. Severus turned to look at her. “If we’re going to - to stay in touch,” she began, and he cut her off.
“It’s dangerous, Beth. I know.” He cleared his throat a bit and started turning his wand over in his hands again. “We’re not - well, I reckon one of us is technically supposed to have killed the other by now.” He laughed, dry and humorless, and she smiled bitterly in return.
“Sev.” It was the first time she’d ever used the nickname - she didn’t know where it came from, but he lifted his head quickly at its usage. She stopped, slightly puzzled, but he didn’t say anything. “I’m willing to give it a shot if you are,” she said at last.
He nodded once. “I am.” He paused, and then added, “It’s worth it.” Beth fought hard, and failed, to keep the smile from reappearing.
“I’ll owl you?” she said, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear as a sudden breeze picked up, creeping around her cheeks and tickling the back of her neck. “I promise you, I will,” she said, laughing slightly at the brief look of doubt that appeared in Severus’s face.
He smiled. “I’ll look out for the letter, then.” He stuffed his hands back in his pockets, at a loss for what else to do. “Are we okay, Beth?”
“We’re okay, Sev.” She used the nickname tentatively, and this time, it was received with another smile. Reaching out a hand, she squeezed his shoulder and folded her arms for the umpteenth time that night. “It’s late - I should probably get back to my flat.”
“Oh. Right. Yeah.” Severus looked around him, finally stowing his wand back in his pocket. “I - well, I’ll see you, Beth.”
“Bye, Severus.” With a final look, and a final smile - both returned with equal enthusiasm - she set off in the direction she had come from. It felt like a lifetime ago; the past year had been a bad dream, and now that Severus had reappeared in her life, it was just like waking up.
As she got further and further away from the bridge, however, there was a slight twisting feeling that began to manifest itself in the pit of Beth's stomach. The very real and present dangers of what she and Severus were attempting to do - maintain a friendship that was shaky with the pressures of the societies they belonged to - seemed all the more clear once she was away from Severus, and could think properly again. Unconsciously, she rubbed her forearm, thinking of the tattoo she had seen on his.
What if she got him killed, or was even killed herself? It wasn't unthinkable - and she was supposed to be hunting down and apprehending the very sorts of people that Severus had turned out to be. She felt as though she was betraying the Order of the Phoenix for her own selfish whims, not turning Severus in to Frank or Moody, or even Dumbledore.
Beth began to chew absently on her thumbnail, thinking about what Sirius would say if he ever found out. "Angry" wouldn't even begin to cover his reaction. His own brother might have been a Death Eater, but this was much different. Sirius and Severus had never seen eye to eye, and finding out that he was a pureblood enthusiast would only serve to drive the wedge between them even deeper. Even telling any of her other friends promised disapproval and scorn, but keeping it bottled up inside was almost worse. She was at a loss as to what to do, and already it was beginning to gnaw away at her.
But she had promised to write to Severus, to maintain that friendship, and she knew that she intended to make good on that promise. He had acknowledged the risks and had proclaimed that salvaging the contact they had once had was worth it; and so it was worth it for her, too.
Beth stopped suddenly on a corner of the pavement, looking up at the nearest signpost in mild surprise. Her small internal monologue and debating had caused her to turn down a street too early - this was the corner Sirius lived on. She turned to go back the way she had come, but instead found herself looking up at Sirius's building. The windows were dark, and she knew the people behind those windows were surely sleeping - it was well past midnight by now.
She was seized by a sudden, wild urge to go up to Sirius's and knock on his door and spill everything to him - seeing Severus under the bridge that night of the mission and knowing he was responsible for murdering one of those Muggles, and receiving the letter from him, and seeing him again tonight to renew something that, for all she knew, had never really existed in the first place. Beth wanted so badly to be able to say everything and know that it wouldn't change a thing between them, even while aware that he wouldn't ever stand for any of it.
But before she could stop herself, she was through the small gate and walking up the path towards the building, passing through the lobby and by the sleepy-looking man at the desk, who barely gave her a second glance. A wild sort of feverish adrenaline was causing her pulse to beat loudly in her ears again, and she all but ran to the door of his flat, feeling scared and nervous and excited and alone, all at once.
She jammed her finger on the bell outside the door, and, when there was no immediate response, held it down. Beth found her teeth were chattering slightly and she didn't know why; she was afraid, so afraid, but thrilled at having to be afraid at all...
Sirius answered the door cursing - it wasn't a surprise. His dark hair obscured his eyes, sleep-tousled and sticking out in all funny directions. "Merlin, Bethy," he said at last, pushing aside his fringe to try and see her better and leaning against the door frame. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"
Even before he had stopped speaking, however, Beth had flung her arms around him, burying her face in the old, ratty T-shirt he wore over his pyjama trousers. He smelled exactly as he always had, and it was such a Sirius smell that she wanted to cry. Not everything was going to change after tonight, because he would always stay the exact same, and she was more grateful for that than anything else at the moment.
"Hey, what's up? Are you okay?" After a moment's hesitation, Sirius had hugged her back, and she could hear the confusion in his voice. For the tiniest of moments, she did consider telling him about Severus, but the words got lost somewhere in her throat.
"I'm fine. Really. I was just walking." Beth laughed, a bit shakily, and then laughed again at Sirius's obviously disbelieving expression. It wasn't completely a lie - she had been walking, after all - but she didn't feel like getting any closer to the truth then that. "I'm going to crash on your sofa tonight."
"All right, then." It was clear that he still didn't believe her for a second, but he wasn't about to push her into talking about the real reason she'd come up to his flat at almost two in the morning. He retreated back into his flat, and she followed, softly shutting the door after herself.
Sirius vanished for a few seconds, and then came back from the direction of his bedroom, a pillow and blanket clutched to his chest. "Make yourself at home," he said, only mildly sarcastic, and dumped the bedclothes onto the tiny loveseat. He studied her face again. "You sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine," Beth said again, a bit annoyed at how tiny her voice sounded, and then added, "Thanks, Sirius." He grinned and ruffled her hair fondly, and she shoved his hand away. "Go to bed," she laughed, and he walked back towards the bedroom. She smiled a bit and laid down, pulling the blanket up to her chin and trying not to think about the uncomfortable sensation still writhing about her insides.
Sirius tried to go back to sleep, but every time he closed his eyes, he became painfully aware of the fact that Beth was sleeping only a few yards away, just on the other side of the door into his bedroom. Why she'd shown up in the middle of the night, he hadn't the foggiest, and part of him wasn't even sure he wanted to know the details in their entirety.
He crept slowly from his bed, opening the door and wincing at the squeaking of one of its hinges. Carefully, he poked his head around the door, squinting in the near-darkness. He could just make out Beth's form on the couch, fast asleep, her side rising and falling slowly in rhythmic breathing.
The fact that she had appeared without warning - well, was he supposed to jump to conclusions about that? What was the proper etiquette for this sort of thing? Was he supposed to make her breakfast the next morning, or wait to use the bathroom until she had? Was this what married couples went through every day of their lives?
Sirius gnawed on his bottom lip and quickly retracted his head, shutting the bedroom door fast. Married couples. James and Lily. He had always known, ever since James had gotten Lily to agree to date him, that he wouldn't really be James's number one anymore. And yet it still stung faintly, playing what felt to him like second fiddle. There were surely things James told Lily that he didn't tell Sirius, jokes they shared that Sirius was left out on. He missed his best friend, and it was just as simple as that. He was lonely.
Before he was able to think about it further, he had opened the door again, and was looking at Beth. It's not love, he told himself. You don't love her. James loves Lily, and this is nothing like that.
But maybe - just maybe - he could make this love. Many relationships had been built on a lot less, in the past. And if he tried this, and it worked, he and Beth would never have to be lonely again. It would benefit both of them.
In the end, he needn't have concerned himself with breakfast, or any other disturbance to his normal morning routine. When he woke up, the blanket was folded neatly and the sofa was cold. The pillow was propped squarely against the armrest, and lying on top of it was a scrap of the previous day's newspaper, one word scrawled hastily upon it: Thanks.
Yes, Sirius could make this work.
A/N: So, bottom line -- this is one of my favorite chapters of this entire plot, period! At least as far as I've written, but it's a bit of a catalyst for a lot of things I've included or am planning to include. And Sneth things happened for, like, the first time, and I shouldn't be having such emotions over my own story. But I am! I really can't wait to hear your opinions on this one -- on both Severus's actions, and Sirius's.
I'll take the time right now to say a quick apology; I've got a lot of reviews to respond to for this story right now, and I promise, I haven't pushed them to the side. I'm on vacation right now, but I respond to every single review I'm left, no exceptions, so they'll all be answered eventually! Thank you so much for giving them, really. And I hope you liked this chapter!